What the latest news about lifting heavy vs. light weights means for you

Is it better to lift heavy weights or light weights? That’s the age-old question. Ask many personal trainers or fitness buffs, and you’re bound to hear that you absolutely have to lift heavy weights to get stronger and build lean muscle. And I’ll admit, I believed that same thing for a while. But over the years, I’ve found a few things about fitness to be true:

  • The best kind of workout you can do for yourself is one that you enjoy and don’t dread.
  • If something is uncomfortable or intimidating, you don’t have to force yourself to do it.
  • Not everyone needs to lift super heavy weights, and that’s fine. But some people love it.
  • If you like to lift light weights, that’s okay, but you’ve got to do it right.
  • Everybody thinks their favorite way of working out is what everyone should be doing.
  • If you stress yourself about doing every single type of workout there is, you’ll wind up in worse shape than if you stick to a few tried and true options and establish a regular program.

We all need resistance training

I am pretty adamant that people of all fitness levels, all ages and varying abilities can benefit from resistance training of some sort, because strong muscles, strong cores and mobile bodies make you feel good and help you get through the day. And while yes, you should be thinking about fitting in at least two resistance sessions each week, maybe you don’t have to be so worried about lifting up super heavy barbells or standing in a squat rack in order to get strong. Here’s why …

What the news about lifting heavy vs. light weights means for you by A Lady Goes West

The latest news on lifting heavy vs. light weights

The topic of whether to lift heavy weights or light weights recently got a flush of interest as The New York Times published a study that basically said both types of lifting gets you fit and strong. The study followed two groups of people and tracked their progress: One group lifted lighter weights, completing more repetitions, while another group lifted heavier weights, completing less repetitions. Both groups lifted weights until the participants hit fatigue, meaning their muscles were tired, and they didn’t feel like they could properly perform another repetition.

There have been many studies like this before, but the reason this one matters more than others is because the people in the study had already been lifting weights for a year and all of their health was assessed before and after. They weren’t starting from scratch.

  • The light weights group lifted between 30 to 50 percent of their one-rep maximum, or as many as 25 reps, until they were tired.
  • The heavy weights group lifted between 75 and 90 percent of their one-rep maximum, or as many as 10 reps, until they were tired.

All volunteers (who were all male, by the way, so let’s hope they repeat the study with women) performed three sets, four times per week, for 12 weeks. And don’t you know, there were absolutely no significant differences between the two groups in growth at the end of the study. They had all gained muscle strength and size, (which we call hypertrophy), no matter the weight that they lifted.

That result comes as a surprise to many who may be thinking that lifting the heaviest thing you can is the only way to get strong and lifting heavy gets you results faster. When it comes to the general population and everyday exerciser, maybe sticking to what you’re comfortable with (if that is lighter weights) is fine, as long as you do it right.

The big takeaway here is that you must work until fatigue in order to get the benefits of resistance training at all – heavy or not. Exhaustion gets your muscles tissues going, so that they grow. Now let’s put it into play in our own lives …

Barre classes and BODYPUMP classes

I think that this study validates a few fitness programs that have been laughed off by hardcore exercisers and weightlifters: barre classes and BODYPUMP. (Why anyone would laugh about BODYPUMP amazes me, because clearly those people have never actually tried it. #BiasedAndIKnowIt.)

When you go to a barre class, oftentimes the upper-body portion involves picking up 1 pound, 2 pound, 3 pound or maybe 5 pound weights only, never heavier. And if you’ve ever tried barre, you know that your arms can feel like they are going to fall off a few minutes into an arm song, using those little tiny weights, and that means you are hitting muscular fatigue. Thanks to the new study, I think we can consider this fatigue in barre class, just as beneficial for our arms as lifting heavier weights for a shorter amount of time. (As long as both are done with proper form, of course.) However, as a note, the resistance training in barre classes is somewhat limited to only a very small portion of class and mostly upper body, so if all you do is go to barre, additional resistance training is probably ideal outside of the barre studio. But those reps you do inside count too!

The same goes for my beloved BODYPUMP class, which I teach (and participate in) twice a week. BODYPUMP offers participants the chance to take nearly every muscle group to fatigue with about five minutes of work per song, per muscle group, using weights far from someone’s one-rep maximum. While I would never say the weights in BODYPUMP are light (certainly heavier than barre classes), but they aren’t super heavy. Thanks to the new study, we can probably consider the complete muscular fatigue achieved in a high-repetition class like BODYPUMP beneficial for building strength.

Muscle strength vs. muscle endurance

The place where this study and its results gets fuzzy is with the terms muscle strength and muscle endurance. A lot of times, people in the fitness industry classify work in terms of muscular strength (less reps, more force required) and muscular endurance (more reps, less force required). These two things are somewhat intertwined, and this study calls their relationship into question, because both groups gained strength. The moral of the story is that we need both endurance and strength, and maybe we’re actually working on them at the same time. I think we’ll hear more about this one day as the study is repeated to include women.

Takeaways: Hit fatigue and vary your program

Maybe you only have one set of rusty old five-pound dumbbells laying around a gym membership isn’t in the budget. Can you still build muscle? Yes.

Maybe you have no desire to circulate the gym floor and want to do all of your exercising in the group fitness room. Can you still build muscle? Yes.

Maybe you get a huge rush from picking up heavy things, but only hit the gym for a few minutes at a time. Can you still build muscle? Yes.

Your workout routine and resistance workout routine should have variety. You should change up your exercise moves, weights and repetitions regularly to challenge yourself, but you don’t have to beat yourself up if you’re not interested in lifting super heavy.

While heavy weights have many benefits and may be essential to bodybuilders, athletes and anyone who loves to lift them as their resistance training of choice, they are just one of the many options. Resistance bands, medicine balls, TRX, dumbbells, kettlebells and even those tiny pink weights from barre are all valuable and viable choices for your weightlifting needs.

To be honest, I actually like to lift heavy weights for only a few repetitions and often incorporate that into my workout program each week to complement my BODYPUMP sessions. And a couple of months ago, I even worked with a trainer for six weeks to lift really heavy stuff. I enjoyed it because it gave me the chance to try something new, and it switched up my routine. I know others love the thrill of hitting a PR in the gym every few weeks with big weights, which makes them motivated to continue adding more and more weight. But if that’s not you, it’s okay. You can achieve your own PRs through bodyweight work, extra repetitions, perfect form and more.

Moral of the story: If you want to get strong, focus on performing QUALITY repetitions until you’re tired, and you’ll get the benefits. And don’t you ever talk bad about BODYPUMP. Just sayin’. Happy lifting, my friends!

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  1. This is such a great post! I’m so glad you addressed the topic of lifting light vs. lifting heavy, and you provided some great info. YES to validating barre classes and BODYPUMP. They’re no walk in the park, friends. I’ll be sharing this in tomorrow’s #FFavorites for sure. Yes!

    1. Hi Heather! Yay! Glad you enjoyed it. It’s been on my mind for a while, so glad I finally put words on the screen. Fresh on your mind after going to FlyBarre today, right? Happy Friday Eve, lady!

  2. This is such a great post! I love informative ones. Thanks for taking the time to write it for us!

    I’ve heard of weight lifting “to fatigue” but I honestly don’t know what that means. I usually do 12-14 reps x 3. So would to fatigue mean the last set I do more than 14 until my muscles feel like jello? (A bit of an exaggeration but not sure what I should feel).

    1. Hi India! I know, hitting fatigue can be weird, but if you think about your last rep or second to last rep, if you are struggling to keep good form — like your arms come away from your body in a bicep curl, or you can’t get low enough in your squat — then that’s fatigue. It burns, and yes, sometimes feels like jello. Does that make sense? 🙂

  3. I thought the study was fascinating when I read it, and I’m glad that you talked about it! I do a bit of both–I’m trying to lift heavy to get some of my lifts stronger, but I also do some endurance type lifts because I enjoy them more and they are more useful for what I do otherwise.

    1. Hi Susie! Yes, it’s about time someone did a study like this right. Next they need to include ladies! 🙂 Keep up your good routine!

  4. I really love this, because it has so much balance. I love lifting ‘medium’ weights; that’s why Body Pump (when I tried it once) was really fun for me, because the weight wasn’t really heavy, but it wasn’t really light either, but I do agree wholeheartedly with you that it seems like (for me) that my strength increases the most, when I’m keeping my muscles guessing by doing different kinds of strength workouts. If we lived closer to the gym, I would probably do Body Pump more often, but right now I’m all about the home gym workouts. 🙂

    1. Just use what you have available to your best ability, Emily! That’s the way to do it. 🙂 And maybe one day you’ll be close to BP, but until then, home workouts are totally fine! Have an awesome day!

  5. Love this post! I always notice first time male BodyPump participants always try to lift super heavy at first and then have to either stop or lighten their weights because they’re not used to working on muscle endurance. I personally prefer to lift lighter and perform more reps because I feel like it’s a little safer and I know I can perform correct form.

    1. hhahah YES! I often speak quietly to the new guys in the room and let them know they should NOT be trying to lift as much as me or those around them if it’s their first time — even if they lift heavy outside of the group fitness room. Lots of reps is a big change for the body. And you are SOO smart to do what you feel comfortable with and keeping good form. Keep it up, Patricia!

  6. Great post Ashley! I feel the same way, I like to lift heavier about once a week, outside of the group fitness room, but prefer to do more of the endurance stuff the rest of the time :).

  7. Such a great article, and really validated a lot of my preconceived thoughts! I was hugely into CrossFit 5 years ago and got great results, then shifted a 180 to being solely committed to barre and got great results. Albeit, very different results, as my barre classes primarily focused on booty strength whereas CrossFit had an all over approach.

    Ultimately, what I’ve figured out is that feel healthiest when I do a workout that just plain gets done. If I enjoy my time in the gym and I actually get into the gym, then my fitness day is made.

    Thanks for sharing, lady!
    XO, Jessica

    1. You got it! Nice approach, Jessica! So glad you can pull from different workout experiences and figure out what’s right for your body!

  8. Awesome post, girl!! I love reading and learning about this : )

    Honestly my best results have always come (I’m 5’9 and long and lean) with HEAVY weights! With everything else I’ve ever tried I still have not been able to target my thighs and actually put the muscle on that I love and feel my best with.

    I do minimal cardio and love programs like LiveFit Trainer – it’s how I transformed my body : )

    I adore your posts!!


    1. Hi Kris! It’s so important to know what you like and respond to. And heavy weights are it for you– so do it! Thanks for saying hi and have a great weekend!!

  9. I love Body Pump! It’s the only reason I started lifting weights. My gym recently switched to Group Power, which is similar to Body Pump. The fatigue factor is still there, but balance and functional fitness is also incorporated. One day I’d like to lift heavy too 🙂

    1. Hi Terri! I’ve never done Group Power, but I know the two companies used to be one– before Les Mills and BODYPUMP went off and grew. But yes, hitting fatigue is the key! Glad you are getting it in your workouts. Have an awesome weekend!

  10. So on point! I absolutely agree. Do you listen to Ben Greenfield podcast? In one of the recent episodes, he discussed how even just flexing your muscles, without using any equipment at all, can give you very similar results to heavy weight training.
    I used to not care about weights at all, then went to another extreme and went along with “everybody has to lift extremely heavy” movement, and have now found what works the best for me. For me, it’s the mixture of moderate to heavy weights, but also a lot of bodyweight training.

    1. Hi Kersten! No, I’ve never listened to Ben Greenfield, but I will have to check him out. So interesting how we believe certain things to be true, until we test them on our own bodies. Glad you’ve found a plan that works for you! 🙂

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